Benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, are a group of tranquilizer drugs frequently used to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, and various other conditions. Many people treat “benzos” lightly, thinking that they are less dangerous than other kinds of drugs. Because of this misconception and their relatively widespread availability, benzodiazepines are frequently abused. When abused alone, benzodiazepines can cause dizziness, confusion, lack of coordination, and difficulty breathing. While not necessarily deadly, these symptoms have led to falls and motor vehicle accidents. The abuse of benzodiazepines may not usually lead to overdose or death when they are used in isolation, but the statistics tell an alarming story of their dangers in other common cases.
The greatest risks arise when benzos are combined with other drugs or alcohol. 75% of deaths from benzodiazepine overdose occur in conjunction with opioid use. This figure makes more sense when one considers that patients are frequently prescribed the two kinds of drugs together – one example being an opioid prescription to treat pain, and a benzodiazepine prescription to treat muscle spasms. The two drugs can depress the respiratory system to a dangerous degree when taken together, the threat being so great that the FDA is now calling for warnings to be posted on both kinds of medications. The combination of benzodiazepines with alcohol is similarly risky, with the effects of both amplifying each other when used simultaneously. This combination is more common than one may think, with substance abuse treatment admissions having tripled between 1998 and 2008 for sedatives and alcohol used in conjunction.
Over the past 20 years, prescription rates for benzodiazepines have tripled and fatal overdoses have quadrupled. Many are familiar with America’s opioid epidemic, but some have called the abuse of benzodiazepines a “shadow epidemic” that presents its own dangers to public health and safety. Benzodiazepines can become addictive with long term use, and over time, one may develop a high tolerance for the drugs. While women are prescribed benzos more than men, young men are the primary recreational users of the drug – a trend that is linked with a rapid development of tolerance and an escalation of dose that could lead to dangerous consequences. And those men who are prescribed benzodiazepines to treat anxiety should be aware of their potential to cause erectile dysfunction with regular use – often a great source of anxiety for men in and of itself.
Withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines can be severe. Those who stop taking benzos to manage anxiety may face “rebound” anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks, with those coming off of higher dosages facing psychotic reactions or seizures. With their potential for abuse and serious withdrawal symptoms, benzodiazepines are not the lightweight drugs that public perception paints them as. While they certainly have their uses in treating various medical issues, individuals should always monitor their responses and keep an eye out for any habits that form with use. While they may act quickly and effectively, benzodiazepines should never be used as a crutch or as a quick-fix without the prescription and guidance of a medical professional; proper use is critical if one is to avoid the risks of falling into a state of benzodiazepine dependence and abuse.